What is old is new again.

retro consoles

Your kids pick up your habits, both good and bad. Being a gamer and involved in geek culture my kids are exposed to a healthy dose of science fiction, video games, board games, comics . . . you get the idea.

What I had not counted on was my son picking up and demanding more information about older or retro video games. His focus was learning primarily how gaming got started then how gaming evolved to today. He would ask ‘What was the first console ever made?’, ‘Why did they stop making [retro console]?’, ‘How many bits is a [modern console] compared to [retro console]?’ these were easy to answer they were objective questions. Then came ‘Which console had the best graphics?’ or ‘Which console was the most popular?’ (tell me you don’t remember those arguments back in the day!) these weren’t easy to answer cause they were more subjective questions. So we had to discuss what that meant between an objective or subjective question, then discuss how to add parameters to subjective questions to reach objective answers. This was great cause I was teaching him something useful on top of the possibly less useful history of gaming. His questions sometimes got so complex we would have to do a bit of research to find the answer so varied was his retro gaming interests.

Of course all of this just made me want to share the retro gaming experience with him. Because that’d be not only awesome but a perfect excuse for some ‘Dad Tinkering’. So I began looking into how to experience the classic retro gaming experience today. First there are a number of ‘classic console’ devices available but these all limited your experience to specific games and consoles brands, plus I couldn’t use my existing cartridges with them, I already had a RetroN 3 device (an older model the new one is more impressive) and a few cartridges and controllers. I was also looking for a way to allow my kids to use a device without having to handle collectible games discs/cartridges directly but would allow them to experience any game we could collect without being limited. So what I wanted was ready off the shelf per say but I found there are a number of alternatives from building and configuring your own ‘retro console’  or even modding an existing console.

I would recommend these options if your just looking for the fastest plug and play option with minimal fuss, just remember you have more than one favorite classic you might have multiple devices to cover them all.

Not to mention allowing use of classic and collectible cartridges and controllers. Really the method is 100% up to you and your comfort level or experience.

I began to investigate other options such as using an old PC, the chosen device an old Mac Mini. I was able by about attempt twelve or thirteen to install Ubuntu and then RetroPie along with an emulator and copies of ROMs from cartridges I already owned. This is where I encountered the first hurdle in the return to retro gaming. While all the technology still works television technology has sped way the hell up! So while I could put the Mac Mini on a television screen via a converter cable the only audio output was a 3.5mm headphone jack, which was lacking from my television with it’s modern HDMI and Component connections. Then there is Aspect Ratio and resolution to consider, depending on your preference there are a number of ways to accomplish a clear picture on an HD television but depending on the route you take for your retro game device results can vary wildly. The Mac Mini gave a 720p resolution output but the Aspect ratio was 4:3 versus the televisions native 16:9 so images were to be either contained in a block or stretched across the screen for a less than impressive viewing experience.

This led to my next attempt at retro console using a modded Wii Console. A few things to note that the max resolution of the Wii is 720p via Component cables but the included Video/Audio cables only support a paltry 480p. So depending on the size of your television this may not be the best option but let me just say sometimes less is more in the world of retro gaming as a 32″ to 42″ television is perfect for such resolution and that nostalgic feel. I was able to mod our Wii without any issues, this is not always the case for everyone, using this handy Wii Modding Guide (modding can harm your console, read twice, proceed at own risk) and a SD Card (32GB) I original bought a 64GB SD Card but that is not support by the Wii, there is some magic you can work via the modding tools to use a USB Hard Drive but I didn’t need that amount of space for our meager cartridge collection. Note some of the content regarding modding found online is dated as the community has aged or moved on. So don’t trust every URL or guide that doesn’t seem vetted especially older forum threads, this way can lead madness and bricked consoles.

Overall I found this retro console setup ended up working out better for us as we were able to use both the Wii (which has excellent kid friendly Nintendo games) and also load the few ROMs we already have cartridges of without worrying about my young son causing them any damage! Also the television we hooked this too was a 32″ and the image is crisp for both the Wii and retro games. So now I can place this on their TV to allow them to use without worry of losing classic cartridges or consoles. It also seemed to be a good bridge for my kids into modern consoles without the hassles of moderating them on the latest consoles with their open mics and party chat.

Needless to say prepared for some hurdles and frustrations as you try to sort out retro gaming to a more user friendly experience in our modern age. So a few things to consider when deciding on how to get back into retro gaming:

  • Television Size & Resolution – you might be disappointed playing 8-bit on a large screen or the quality of the image blown up
  • Television Connection – make sure your retro gaming option hooks up properly for both video and audio
  • Desired Retro Console – choose the option you think will work best for you from DIY, Modding, or simply purchasing a device
  • Cost – lay out your plan and costs up front otherwise you will end up spending a lot more in the long run

Our Retro Gaming Setup

Note that the usage of emulators and ROMs has a myriad of tales regarding legal issues and implications. While we discuss the usage of emulators and ROMs here we stress that you do so legally and responsibly. We recommend this excellent article here regarding the legal implications of ROMs and emulation.

Feature Photo by: JackBrookes
Modified via crop fit size and used by Creative Common license.

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About the Author: Buruko

A gamer & father of two who strangely still tries to cram gaming into his busy schedule.